Tony Cummings spoke to ROD WATTS and MIKE BRETT who find themselves in the unlikely position of having a Christian retail best seller.
As anyone in the music industry will tell you, no one quite knows what constitutes a best seller but the release of Homemade Jazz Hymns: Make A Joyful Noise is surely one of the most unexpected successes to hit Christian retail for years. Two trad jazz veterans recording jolly renditions of old hymns has, thanks to huge exposure on local radio, produced an album which is flying out of the racks. I tracked down Rod Watts and Mike Brett and got their unusual story.
TC: Give me a bit of your background, Rod.
RW: I was born in 1950 in Birmingham and brought up in a Salvation Army family. A wonderfully happy time in my life. I attended The Salvation Army at Birmingham Citadel. Clearly a formative time for me in developing life's values and my musical tastes. In 1969 I went to Manchester University to study Maths and while there I joined the university Jazz club which gave me an introduction to New Orleans Traditional Jazz. After leaving Manchester University I came to Eastbourne to train as a Maths teacher at of all places a specialist PE teachers training college. I did as a youth enjoy some success in the sports arena as an athlete and also played Rugby at Cardiff arms park as an Englishman against Wales (schoolboys). My father being Welsh and shouting for England did raise a few eyebrows! The way I came to be in the Salvation Army was as a result of my Grandfather who was a notorious drunkard and serious trouble maker in his younger days in Bargoed, Wales, being converted and his life transforming as a result. Anyhow in 1972 I arrived in Eastbourne to train as a teacher (by which time I was not a Salvationist), and from there I taught for some 10 years in England and also in Colombia. Well things for me 10 years on (approaching 1983) were not quite right and I started searching for the missing bit, not knowing quite where to look, but knowing I had to. I picked up my bible (The New English Bible) which was presented to me when I was a kid in the boys band, and started reading. In fact I read the Old testament through, and then with that background I read the new testament right through. I was in my heart warmed by what I read, but being a Mathematician was reluctant to "deceive myself" by any wishful thinking. I wasn't after a quick fix! I will come back to this later.
Anyhow, after my conversion point around 1983, I went to the local
Baptist church in Eastbourne, and Mike at that time was the caretaker
there. I met up with Betty Lou Mills (American Gospel Singer) who
attended the church and I arranged for her. Also Mike at that time had
written several songs and he used me as the keyboard player to realise
his compilation "The Question". Well that was back in 1984, and ever
since we have been great friends through thick and thin, and many a
time Mike has been a great support/mentor to me in times of
difficulty, and also a great pal to laugh with and enjoy happily the
good times together as well as the difficult. In other words we are
deep personal friends and not just musical acquaintances.
TC: So how did you come into the picture, Mike?
MB: In 1983 I was getting a band together to record some gospel songs that I had written for a cassette called "The Question". At that time I was the caretaker of the Victoria Baptist Church in Eastbourne. Rod was introduced to me as a keyboard and trombone player, and he joined the band and we have been good continuous friends ever since, although not continually making music together. Some years later around 1994 we decided to try some new instruments namely Alto sax For Rod and Clarinet for me, and we encouraged each other in the learning of these new instruments. We would get together one night a week to enjoy playing for our own amusement and pleasure, and the interest in Jazz developed from this. Jazz has always been a great interest for me, even at a very early age this was the music that really turned me on. When the radio was on and swing or Jazz music was being played, I would go for my mother's cake tins and with a couple of knives for drum sticks I would play along with the music. Rod has had a very broad spectrum of musical styles, and Jazz didn't quite hold the same central interest for Rod but over the years I have tried to encourage Rod to get involved and into the swing of things.
TC: I understand that Homemade Jazz Hymns began as an independent project and that you've been responsible for getting it wide radio exposure. Tell me the story.
RW: Well, myself and Mike around 1994, whilst regularly meeting up as personal friends and sharing thoughts on things big and small, recognised that we both were "ripe" to explore a new instrument, Me the Sax and Mike the Clarinet. So around the Christmas of 1994 I turned up with a battered old alto and honked lovingly "Good King Wenceslas" outside his doorstep while the snow was falling. He answered the door double quick time as there was (unbeknown to me) a prayer meeting going on in the main church hall! Well from there we got together weekly and I would make use of my expanding home studio facilities. For me it would be a welcomed break from the entertainment music I worked with, and allowed me to enjoy once again Jazz music which had no place in my work, although I did have extensive improvisational skills which were used in my entertainment work and teaching work.
For a year or two, we would hash up a one night wonder track, things like Dinah, and other loveable old style Jazz standards, and we did our level best on our new instruments to emulate as well as we could the style we both enjoyed. Then around about 1996, we had tried a few tracks trying to emulate the Old Preservation Hall New Orleans style as opposed to the mainstream style, and our primitive honks on clarinet and Sax matured and were held together by semi sequenced material as our platform to attempt to improvise on. Then we decided to give the great hymn "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" a run in this style, going along the funeral band style, and rather than bash it through in a week, we somehow sensed that this deserved better and that something really good could come through on it. Well several weeks later the track was completed, and still not a thought of it being presented to anyone outside the 4 walls where it was made. At its completion, Mike said, why not send it up to BBC Southern Counties John Radford to see if he would use it. Well my jaw dropped, and my initial reaction was "But Mike , this is the BBC. They won't play this".
Basically we were both totally at ease with the Jazz treatment and it's acceptability with hymns, but I felt our low quality horn honking really was just not up to it. Anyhow, I went with the suggestion, and the very next weekend, a phone call came through from John Radford saying his BBC SCR tel. lines are burning down after this track being played. We were both mesmerised by this, and week after week the track was asked for again and again. People were asking where can they buy it, and John's answer was "Well you can't". We from that point, put our weekly time to generating one more hymn and then another at about 2-3 monthly intervals. We took great care over our arranging which came about slowly as the track grew through the weeks, and only when we were happy did we send it up to the hungry listeners at BBC SCR. By this stage we had become labelled as "The Two Old Geezers Jamming It Up In The Bathhroom", and this very fond label has simply stuck to us.
We at first thought this would be a quick flash in the pan at BBC SCR, but after every new track it became more and more evident this wasn't going to be a 5 week novelty wonder. Pressure grew on us to create a compilation, and in fact we did create a mixture of the hymns we had together with a handful of Secular Jazz standards, in order to appease the demand at BBC SCR for this. It was a home baked CDR compilation. We continued to generate/arrange carefully and in no hurry one new hymn track at a time, and yet again the begging requests to be able to have these tracks to play at home. So we steadily held back the pressure and about Christmas of 2002, we were reaching the point of getting this 10 hymn compilation ready for our BBC SCR friends/listeners/advocates. Well, time was pushing against us to have it ready for the Christmas, and we were getting ready to hold people off until February 2003 say. Then, out of the blue, ICC record label called us in, shook hands on it, and said it would be out for Christmas. We were shell shocked by this, and suddenly we had the sensation of responsibility that a serious label had set this CD up for National distribution. We felt out of our depth, and I very naively rallied all the BBC local stations around the country to an awareness of this, without any previous experience of this before.
Well we gasped our way through this really strange time, not knowing how this could have happened, but at the same time, quite sure that this material really had something to give. In the years and months before the ICC signing we were getting really firm feedback, which just persisted from people who had heard our material, and this included youngsters who insisted their non-christian parents got hold of the CD, and also many occasions where people in their final stages of terminal illness were enjoying our Jazz style hymns and insisting that tracks from our CD were played at their funeral!. All the way along this material has been drawn out from the continued encouragement from BBC SCR listeners, and since the release last December, slowly and surely a dozen or so other BBC stations have been warming to it all. Essentially it seems there is a growing underground interest that is spreading slowly but incessantly. We do not know how long it will carry on, but can see right now, everything about it is good, and it's journey is well from over. In fact BBC SCR is as insistent as ever after 4 years, and basically hardly a week goes by without a request for our material. In fact right now, we are aware it is being played on Australian Radio (a delighted email to us from a station), and also has a cluster of interest in the USA, and even Qatar! All the material has been recorded and individual tracks mastered at my home studio, and ICC did the compilation mastering.
TC: Christians have a hazy knowledge that the origins of New Orleans jazz were in some way tied up with gospel... When The Saints Go Marching In and all that. How DOES jazz fit into the development of Christian music?
MW: The pressure and stress and fear that the black slaves were under in the southern states of America and other places brought these people closer together and gave them an awareness that in spite of their trouble there was a God who loved them and cared about their problems. To help them keep this in the forefront of their minds they would sing to the Lord to tell him about their troubles. Songs that we would know today as Negro spirituals. Somehow the sound of those songs with their great rhythm feel just seem to come out of the inner being of these people. They seem to feel every word and every note. Eventually great black musicians came on the scene, people like Bunk Johnson, Buddy Bolden, George Lewis and of course the great Louis Armstrong and many others. The Jazz age was born, and spiritual songs were carried into it, such as When the Saints Go Marching in, Lord, Lord, you've surely been good to me, Joshua fit de battle of Jericho, Just a closer walk with thee, Precious Lord take my hand, etc, etc.
I don't feel that Jazz has to fit in with Christian music today. It's already there in the development of what we call "Christian " music. I feel that in many Christian peoples minds Jazz can be like a dirty word, so I think for many years now it is a part of Christian music that has been ignored. I have been taken to task for playing Jazz as a Christian, the reason given is because of the unsavoury and sinful places it has come from in past years. I have been told to get away from it and "Touch not the unclean thing". Those who have told me this have their interest in things like photography and what could be used for more unsavoury and sinful purposes than that when you think of pornography etc. Some of the people who listen to our music have said that it's a great pity that more of our Joyful Noise music isn't used in church, as it might put more bums (excuse me) on pew seats and get people into church under the sound of the gospel. Rod and I know that what we do is not going to please everybody, but it is rather sad to us that we have been accused of sacrilege in playing our music around these lovely old hymns. All we ask is that people will find out about us and where are hearts are with God and in our ministry of spreading the gospel in this way, before such accusations are brought against us. So it would be good for Christian jazz musicians to unite and use their talents for God in this way.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.